As he searched for the answers, the Gloucester City High School senior picked at dried up blood on the bridge of his nose. The wound was fresh, a badge of honor from an otherwise mildly disappointing morning.
A.J. Parent lost in the 132-pound championship match of his school’s holiday tournament last Monday, according to the official results at least. The officiating was contested throughout; a missed takedown call here, unaccounted back points there.
The first three weeks of his final high school wrestling season has had the usual array of triumphs and tribulations, but Parent’s focus is unwavering. A runner-up at a district championship title last winter, the lifelong wrestler has put in the work to take the next step in his prep career in 2020.
“Hard work,” Parent said of the reason he’s confident a breakout year is in the making. “Just all the hard work and preparation.”
Parent’s commitment extends beyond wrestling’s regular season.
If you’re a Gloucester resident, you’re likely to see him running around town throughout the year. His running regiment – sprints, jogs, long-distance running – is constant. And for 12 months a year he said he’s also wrestling six nights a week.
“He’s by far one of the most coachable kids I’ve ever coached in my life,” said Tom McConnell, a long-time wrestling coach who worked with some talented kids at Eastern and Kingsway before launching Gloucester’s program in 2010. “He listens to everything the coaches say, he’s always going out on his own for extra work all the time. He’s going to clubs to work. He lifts all the time. He’s just doing everything he can to take the steps to get to that next level.”
Both Parent and fellow senior Derron Cooney (who won the heavyweight titles at the Gloucester and Collingswood tournaments) provide veteran leadership to a Lions team on the rise. Gloucester’s program wasn’t even around when Parent was a youth wrestler; he joined Highland’s midget program when he first got into the sport as a 5-year-old.
“I can’t wait to see for years to come (what this program can accomplish),” Parent said.
Parent is doing his part in laying down the standard for future Lions to follow. After collecting two wins as the runner-up in Gloucester’s tournament last Monday, Parent had 90 career wins heading into January.
He was not only 10 wins from the prestigious 100-win plateau, but just 14 wins away from overtaking 2014 graduate Jonathan Lado for the distinction as the winningest wrestler in school history.
“I’m not really going for 100, I’m going for as many as I can,” Parent said. “I don’t really keep count, I just wrestle every match hard.”
Parent did just that in the Paulsboro Tournament the weekend before Christmas. In his third straight season in the championship match, Parent finally got to stand on the highest podium after beating Howell’s James McGee 6-1.
“You’re talking about two of the top teams in the state (Paulsboro and Howell) that are in that tournament,” McConnell said. “A.J. wrestled very well, regardless of the fact that he won it. It’s just the way he’s been wrestling. He’s been a lot more aggressive than he’s been in the last three years.”
Nine days later, Parent had to swallow a loss, questionable calls or not. But perhaps it’s the tough losses that truly mold a wrestler as he moves through the journey that is a high school wrestling career.
Between the start of 2020 and a chance at representing his school in Atlantic City in March, Parent will surely experience more ups and downs. Knowing it’s his final year to make a mark on the South Jersey wrestling scene, Parent can use it all as motivation to collect a medal or two before heading off to graduation.
“They,” he said of the defeats, “keep the fire going.”